When I was just starting uni, a friend and I were walking through the Sydney CBD, hanging out and looking for jobs. We’d moved in to neighbouring colleges, and thought it would be fun to try and get work together. And so we rambled, as one does under these circumstances, and talked. By and by, we passed a homeless man with a begging cup. I went to walk on, but my friend rummaged in her purse, pulled out some coins and dropped them. At the look on my face, or maybe just because she’d stopped and I hadn’t, she stated that it was good to give – she could afford it, he clearly needed it, and so why not, when it was just spare change anyway? Impressed (because I was, in many respects, in awe of this friend, and just a little prone to emulation), I nodded sagely. On we walked.
Near Town Hall, we were stopped by some charity hawkers. This seemed like a good opportunity to investigate possible work, so we started talking to one of the young salesmen. Yes, he could give us a number to call – was very happy to do so, as it would mean a recruitment bonus for him – but only I was eligible: I’d just turned 18, the minimum age of application, while my friend still had another two months to go. We kept chatting anyway, because the boy was friendly, only to be interrupted by a foul old man, short and filthy, who came and asked if we could spare any money. Although repulsed, I saw a chance to impress my friend, and did as she’d done earlier, finding two dollars in my wallet and handing it over. The man grabbed it and ambled off. I turned back, expecting a smile or somesuch approval, only to find my friend staring at me, not quite aghast, but something very close to.
‘That man was an addict,’ she said. ‘Didn’t you see his teeth, his hands? They were stained yellow. He’ll just spend it on cigarettes. You just gave money to an addict.’
This was not the reaction I’d expected: I felt guilty, stupid and embarassed, as though the ability to tell which mendicants were deserving of aid and which weren’t was an innate, universal skill I’d somehow missed out on. I won’t pin all my subsequent non-givings on this one incident, because that would be both unfair and untrue; but it did make me feel agitated at the sight of beggars for some time afterwards.
As things worked out, I took the hawking job, at which I proved utterly useless, and after a week (or possibly two) I was fired, not having signed up a single person. So I did what most undergradute students do, and tried for work in a cafe. To my great surprise, was successful.
I worked at Corelli’s for nearly two years as a waitress, dishpig and general cold-drinks-mixer (not a barrista; I don’t drink coffee and certainly can’t brew it). It was a good job: the pay was $10 an hour cash in hand, most of which I banked, the staff were eccentric in a way I grew to love, and it kept me busy. It also exposed me to the Newtown Crazies – a collection of long-term homeless folk with mental disabilities. Newtown Crazies was how I thought of them: maybe that was partly from a sense of friendly possession, but mostly, I suspect, it came from fear. There were a few who came to the cafe, sometimes with money, usually not. One man sat on street corners with a box of washing power, constantly scooping and dropping it onto his hair, rocking back and forth in practised delirium. When he came in, his voice was cracked and unintelligible: he’s ask for a cuppa tea, and I’d flee to the kitchen, delegating responsibility to someone older and more sure. Another woman – aged, insofar as I could tell, somewhere between 50 and 80 – would come, swearing under her breath and swinging an ancient black bag, bare toenails yellowed and gnarled, accompanied by a grey-haired, gentle, simple man with a half-black beard and a soft, shaky voice. It was difficult to tell who looked after who: he could’ve been her friend, or son, or nephew, but they were always together. The woman would sit outside and ask for a cuppa tea and a cheese sandwich. We’d let her run up credit; and, occasionally, she’d remember to pay, or else someone from the shelter up the road would.
And they frightened me. I felt awful and guilty for it, but that didn’t change anything: on some base level, the fact that their behaviour was unpredictable and foreign, that they themselves were unreachable via conventional reasoning, made me edgy. I should have felt pity. I tried to, and sometimes did. But the fear was still there.
One day, the grey man came in without the woman, and conveyed to us that she’d been hit by a truck when wandering across the main road – I imagined her, swearing, bag swinging – and was now an amputee. She hadn’t given the doctors permission to operate on her shattered legs until it was too late: by then, the wounds had gone gangrenous, and they’d had no other option. We didn’t see her after that, or her friend, but at that moment of speaking to him solo, I felt sad. The grey man looked mournful, lost. He’d always been gentle, and I realised I’d never been frightened of him, at least. Not really.
As I walked to lunch today, a ragged man with crooked teeth stopped me on the street, touched me on the shoulder. He explained he was homeless at the moment, hungry, thirsty – did I have money for a burger? And I lied; I said there was no change in my wallet and walked on, feeling indescribably shamed. I’d panicked, because he touched me: I’d had my iPod in, and had baulked at the sudden contact. I kept walking, replaying the event. I passed another homeless man, bent and quiet, dispirited in silence. Was I angry that the first man hadn’t yet been broken, that he dared address me rationally? When I turned away, what failings did I assume on his behalf – that he was solely responsible for his current plight, that bad luck hadn’t touched him, that I had no reason to help? I had, and worse, and it was wrong. I felt sick.
As I paid for my lunch – a smoothie – I reached into my wallet and found six dollars in gold coins. I pulled them out, clenched them in my palm, and resolved to walk back past the man and give him the money. I’d make amends – stop and chat, even, tell a white lie that the coins were change from my lunch. I’d been shorter with him than I’d meant, because the touch had frightened me, his directness had startled me. Charitably, I’d been off-balance, but that didn’t excuse my actions. I knew that now. I’d go back, and do what I should’ve done to start with.
On my return, however, the man was gone. Someone else been guilter, more generous than me. He’d been telling the truth, after all – money in hand, I picutured him eating, gone straight away to keep his word. As I hadn’t kept mine. I’d been the liar, not him. I looked for the silent beggar I’d seen, but he was gone, too. I walked further, resolving to give the money to the first outstretched hand I saw, but no-one was there. It was like they’d evaporated. In the end, I spent 50 cents stamping a letter, then slipped the rest back in my coin pouch, cold and unspent.
Between then and now, I’ve had moments of charity – stopping to talk to a woman as she cried into torn paper towels on Southbank; giving paper money to a youth and his old dog – but nothing consistent. Why do I give to some, but not others? Whimsy, it seems, and whether or not the person scares me, but never for lack of money. Today, hopefully, I’ve learned better.
If nothing else, I promise to open my eyes.